The investigations into deaths and delays at Veterans Affairs hospitals are escalating, and statements calling for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki's resignation are being released faster than journalists can write about them.
However, it's not so clear where the White House stands on Shinseki's political future -- they have a history of being opaque when it comes to supporting (or not) politically toxic employees. The Washington Post's Scott Wilson interviewed an academic about why presidents walk such a careful line when public opinion turns against their underlings last fall during the deeply flawed Obamacare rollout. "Generally, presidents are very bad at firing people," said Stephen Hess at the Brookings Institute. "These things happen. But it reflects a mistake the president has made, and they don’t like to admit mistakes.” Presidents hope that if they change their opinions about coworkers in an ever so subtle way, you won't even notice.
Since it's so hard to figure out what the White House is exactly saying, especially in situations when the president's reputation is on the line, here's our very own Fix translator that takes White House statements on endangered employees and turns them into, well, regular English. It turns out that nearly every time someone calls for an Obama official to resign, the White House responds in the same exact way: with full confidence, whatever that means.
White House: "The president remains confident in Secretary Shinseki's ability to lead the department and to take appropriate action based on the IG's findings."
English: The president is confident that Shinseki will know that he is going to need to make some major changes when this report comes out. M-A-J-O-R changes.
White House: "The president has confidence in Secretary Shinseki, who has launched a broad investigation into this matter and tasked or asked the independent inspector general at Veterans Affairs to investigate this matter."
English: Stop asking us this question until we finish the investigation. We have nothing new to tell you, but you can use another quote about the president being confident if you want.
White House: "I worked very closely with Secretary Shinseki. And I know that he and I would agree to a lot of things. And unless he personally bird-dogged it, it was very tough for those things to get done in VA. I had my own problems in the Department of Defense, but I know it was a challenge for him and, frankly, for his predecessors."
English: As someone who also had an impossible job in the Obama administration, I'm on Team Shinseki. There was no way he could succeed at the job he was given.
White House: "The President has confidence in Secretary Shinseki."
English: I told you we were going to keep repeating this until the investigations were done.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney answering the question, "Is Secretary Shinseki on thin ice here? I mean, if he doesn’t show results on this soon, get satisfactory answers soon, are his days numbered?" on May 21, 2014
White House: "I think everyone in high office in an administration serves at the pleasure of the president."
English: If Obama doesn't like that report, Obama will, by definition, not be pleased. Make of that what you will.
White House: “I know that Ric’s attitude is, if he does not think he can do a good job on this and if he thinks he’s let our veterans down, then I’m sure that he is not going to be interested in continuing to serve."
English: The president is confident that Shinseki will know when the appropriate time to resign is. If it comes to that. Which it hasn't.
White House: (Silence)
English: I have a bad feeling about this.
White House: “I support Secretary Shinseki. This is an individual who has the responsibility, as he has said, to be accountable. The President said yesterday that there has to be accountability. There does have to be accountability on — right up and down the line."
English: If things get worse, he should probably resign. I'm not saying he should resign though. Also, accountability.
White House: "The President believes and is confident Secretary Shinseki has heroically served his country as a solider."
English: The President is confident in Shinseki's past service, but is not so sure about the future quite yet.
After the messy Obamacare rollout last fall, many politicians called for the resignation of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. The White House responded with much confidence.
White House: "Nothing has changed about the President's full confidence in Secretary Sebelius. I think you might be over-reading just a little bit into his comments. But, no, the President has full confidence in Secretary Sebelius."
English: We are at the "confidence, confidence, confidence" stage of this kerfuffle. We will let you know if we plan to change to a "strongly support" or a call for accountability at a later date, but for now, we are confident that we are not sure how to deal with this yet.
White House: "You know, my main priority right now is making sure that it delivers for the American people."
English: My main priority is no longer expressing confidence in Sebelius. So, I'm not going to answer your question. Like, at all.
White House: "Now, just a couple things about Kathleen. When I nominated Kathleen more than five years ago -- I had gotten to know Kathleen when she was governor at Kansas and had shown extraordinary skills there; was a great advisor and supporter during my presidential campaign, and so I knew that she was up for what was a tough job -- I mentioned that one of her many responsibilities at HHS would be to make sure our country is prepared for a pandemic flu outbreak. I didn’t know at the time that that would literally be her first task. Nobody remembers that now -- but it was."
English: Hey, remember her tenure wasn't all about dealing with Obamacare backlash. She also had to deal with a flu outbreak! Yeah, sorry about that. I am confident she will enjoy retirement more than testifying in front of Congress.
During the "Fast & Furious" gun-running scandal, the White House was again, brimming with full confidence in Attorney General Eric Holder, at the request of the press.
White House: "The President has full confidence in the Attorney General."
English: If you haven't figured out yet, "full confidence" is basically the White House equivalent of "no comment."
The White House did not have full confidence in former IRS official Lois Lerner.
White House: "Let me say that, as you heard from the President immediately after the release of the independent Inspector General’s audit, he is absolutely committed to finding out everything that happened here, finding out who’s responsible for the failures, holding them accountable, and ensuring that the IRS take steps so that this will never happen again."
English: Yes, I said "holding them accountable," one of the scariest rhetorical weapons in the president's possession. Let me also not that "holding people accountable" usually does not bode well for the person in question.